Sunday, May 2, 2010

Banning in Buenos Aires

Two days on the ground in BA with the BBC, and I’ve had a tango education. I’m here as the host for 4 future radio documentaries on BBC Radio 3’s World Routes program. The work began with an intimate home session with the smoky-voiced tango singer Amalia Varela, one of the genre’s most popular contemporary artists. Varela brings a kind of rock ‘n’ roll passion and intensity to the genre—fittingly as she grew up on The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, and turned to tango as part of a search for authenticity and identity. Varela favors the oldest grittiest forms of the music and her set for us included two songs by early-20th-century legend Carlos Gardel, and two even older songs.

From there, we made our way over to a club called No Avestruz (No Ostritches) to hear the fabulous, 8-piece tango orchestra El Arranque play two sets of music that spanned history, from venerable tango tipica, up through the innovations of Astor Piazzola, and even included a few of the group’s own compositions. Their style and verve was visceral, and they had a sold-out house, filled with folks of all ages. El Arranque’s 15-year career is roughly synchronous with a tango revival in Argentina, and these musicians spent the first ten of those years learning the classics before they began embellishing with ideas of their own. In an interview at the Casa de Tango the next day, the group’s bass player and co-founder Ignacio Varchausky spoke powerfully about tango and Argentine identity. The music, he said, is a mirror on the country’s complicated multi-ethnic past, a reality many are uncomfortable facing. Like all great, hybrid music, the sound communicates history, and for many that is a history of Europeans who somehow ended up displaced in South America, a place they may not really belong. Varchausky seems to feel that if more Argentines were open to hearing the messages contained in tango’s complexities, and to facing the reality of their true natures, the country would be more successful, and even better governed. Heady stuff…

Late tonight, we crossed town to a tango dance salon, where well-turned-out, mostly elderly couples turn up just before midnight to dance to sets of classic tangos. Their moves are elegant, mysterious and impeccable. They are obsessed with the whole attitude of tango. They do not seem in the least confused about who they are, but perhaps they are a lucky minority of portenos (citizens of Buenos Aires)—people at ease and in love with the contradictions of Argentine life. My favorite detail: at the Club Gricel, when they want to clear the dance floor, they play the first 90 seconds of “Staying Alive.” Works every time.

From here, we head north to the foothills of the Andes where a whole new set of contradictions and challenges prevail.
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